Books to keep you up all night

The New Year is filled with tempting literary goodies, from fiction to biography to mind-boggling science, says Suzi Feay. But oh, for a wormhole to escape the ubiquitous Harry Potter...

So it's official: 2005 will be a Harry Potter year. And as tradition dictates, the book is to be released bang on midnight on a Saturday, apparently because J K Rowling wants all the children to get their copies at exactly the same time. Wouldn't tea-time, say, be just as good? Why is it that if the product were a pair of trainers we'd see this as a manipulative and cynical marketing exercise, but just because it's a book it's a noble, altruistic gesture by the Blessed Rowling? I shall be one of those on 16 July attempting to stay up all night over Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince but unlike the tinies, no doubt, the saga of Potter's sixth year at Hogwart's School will soon have me... yawn... sigh... zzzzzzzzzzz.

Fortunately, for those who still like to read grown-up books, the publishers' spring catalogues offer many delights. A new novel by Andrew Miller is always cause for celebration. His debut, Ingenious Pain, and its follow-up, Casanova, were unconventional and brilliant historical novels, but he's made the transition to the contemporary novel with ease. The Optimists (Sceptre, March) centres on a photojournalist whose view of humanity is darkened by witnessing the aftermath of genocide in Africa. How can a man find his way back into human life after such devastation? Depressing as that might sound, Miller's books are always strangely uplifting, never didactic: "full," as he describes them, "of food, gardens, journeys and weather".

Rupert Thomson is a mystifyingly underrated writer: his elegant metaphysical fables are not easily forgotten. Perhaps Divided Kingdom (Bloomsbury, April) will bring him the acclaim he deserves. Ian McEwan is another heavy hitter with a book out this spring: Saturday (Cape, February) is set on the day of the great anti-war demo through London last year. His protagonist, Henry Perowne, is a noted neurosurgeon with a huge house, two happy, talented children and a beautiful wife - attributes he thoroughly deserves, for he is a decent, cultured and hard-working man. But this being McEwan's universe, he's about to be punished for his virtues. This cleverly constructed, wise and humane thriller is, for my money, much better than Atonement, and deserves at least the same success.

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (Faber, March) continues this master novelist's examination of memory, love and secrets with its tale of three adults, all once pupils together at the same idyllic school, who come to realise the intense pull the past still has over them. Faber's catalogue is stuffed with good things. Stephanie Merritt's debut, Gaveston, demonstrated an eye for the delusions and disappointments of romantic love, allied to a keen literary sensibility, which bodes well for her follow-up Real (April), the tale of a love affair between a struggling playwright and a fading, older actor. Sam Taylor's The Republic of Trees (Faber, March) nods to The Lord of the Flies with its story of English teenagers living in sleepy rural France who relocate to the woods to create an ideal community and a life of skinny-dipping and rabbit-skinning. When they start assigning each other roles from the French Revolution, you know it's all going to go bloodily haywire ("So I'm De Launay... Well, it's been nice knowing you all"). Also from Faber: Orhan Pamuk on Istanbul: a Life and a City (April); Matthew Sweet's lovingly researched evocation of the early years of British cinema, Shepperton Babylon (February); surely the most snappily titled memoir of the year, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (February) by Nick Flynn, and a new collection from Nobel Prize-winner Derek Walcott, The Prodigal (Feb).

The Irish writer Eugene McCabe was the subject of a tense email exchange I once had with the novelist Alan Warner, who concluded: "If you've never heard of him, you don't deserve to have that job!" I checked out the novel Death and Nightingales forthwith. While McCabe's writing was undoubtedly powerful, in this case it was attached to a singularly mawkish plot. I particularly didn't like the young woman who in her saintly suffering was clearly meant to symbolise old Erin herself. Only for those with green-tinted spectacles... Still, who am I to oppose the mighty mind of Mr Warner? Heaven Lies About Us, a collection of McCabe's short stories, is published this month (Cape).

I've been assured, with gibbering excitement, that with The Family Tree by Carole Cadwalladr, Doubleday has found itself another Kate Atkinson. It is, gulp, a multi-generational saga with slightly irritating chapter headings in the form of dictionary definitions ("Mother, vt. 2: To watch over, nourish and protect maternally"). This year's Behind the Scenes at the Museum, so they say. Wolves Eat Dogs is the rather terrible title of the latest Martin Cruz Smith thriller (Macmillan, March), but as it features his celebrated detective Renko, here investigating a murder against the backdrop of the spookily deserted Chernobyl power station, we should take note. And Philippa Stockley's A Factory of Cunning (Little, Brown, February) uses the author's MA in 18th-century costume design to great effect in a fruity, Georgette Heyer-tastic romp involving a fugitive French aristocrat, "Mrs Fox", and her wicked adversary, the predatory Earl Much. Not perhaps for lovers of the subtler school of historical fiction, but fun nonetheless.

After devouring his two hilarious memoirs, Running with Scissors and Dry, I'm an Augusten Burroughs addict, so the publication of his "secret notebooks" fills me with glee. Magical Thinking (Atlantic), a collection of his wicked and warped observations, is published in May. I'm not sure what to make of Divine Love (May) elsewhere in the Atlantic catalogue. Its authors, Sara Hulse and Toby Starbuck, "examine their own romance" to "embark upon a journey that is part wedding plan, part philosophical odyssey". If that makes you feel a little queasy, just read on. "About the authors: Sara and Toby recently abandoned their West Hampstead love nest for the Sussex countryside, regularly returning to the capital for work, sushi and fashionable clothing. When in town, Toby provides the scripts for movie trailers and Sara works at a literary agency." I only hope this is a spoof; they don't deserve to be Augusten's stablemates.

January is a good month for Romantic biography. In fact, there are three big biogs coming out on the same day. January 20 sees publication of Lyndall Gordon's Mary Wollstonecraft: A new genus (Little, Brown). A thorough, sympathetic life with new materials and interpretation is well overdue. Also published that day, surely tragically for all parties, are two biographies of the fixer, political journalist and friend to more famous writers, Leigh Hunt. Nicholas Roe's Fiery Heart: The first life of Leigh Hunt (Pimlico) stresses his (black?) Caribbean roots, which contributed to his lifelong feeling of being an outsider, and perhaps to a certain floridity in his writing. Roe ends his story abruptly on the beach near Viareggio where Hunt watches the body of his friend Shelley go up in flames (thereby ending his "first life"). But Leigh Hunt lived on for nearly four more decades, and Anthony Holden's The Wit in the Dungeon (Little, Brown) does at least take him to his own deathbed in 1859. Leigh Hunt deserves more than to be remembered simply as the model for the sickening Harold Skimpole in Bleak House (a character skit which Dickens later regretted).

From under-subscribed to over-subscribed: is it possible to find anything new to say about Virginia Woolf? Julia Briggs evidently thinks so - Virginia Woolf: An inner life is an analysis of this perennially fascinating woman through her works, not her life story (Allen Lane, April). Dr Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings, is a biography of a book, rather than an author (John Murray, April). Again, this is rather well-tramped soil, but strong, vivid characters are always a pleasure to meet again.

The magnificent and very slightly silly Madame de Staël is another such. The daughter of Necker, Louis XVI's finance minister, she survived the Revolution with great spirit, running a salon and rescuing friends from the Terror before fleeing to England and making friends with Fanny Burney. She impressed Byron and Goethe with her novels, and ran a salon that was the envy of Europe at Coppet, her father's château near Geneva, to which she was banished by Napoleon. Best of all, she spent the last years of her life with a much younger lover. Maria Fairweather's Madame de Staël is published by Constable in February.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive is Jared Diamond's follow up to his bestseller Guns, Germs and Steel. One of his examples is the poignant tale of the Easter Islanders who deforested their island - sawing off the branch on which they sat, so to speak - to transport the huge stone heads they placed so much value upon. How could a culture end up starving itself to death in the blind pursuit of status? They weren't necessarily stupid, argues Diamond, and goes on to draw chilling parallels with the modern world's mad guzzling of resources. In fact, Easter Island, all alone in the vast ocean, starts to look worryingly like Planet Earth, isolated in the sky, and its inhabitants just as stubborn and irrational.

Allen Lane's strong science list features Don't You Have Time to Think? the letters of physicist Richard P Feynman, woven into a life story by his daughter (June); Warped Passages: Unravelling the Universe's Hidden Dimensions by Lisa Randall (June); and Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds (February), which posits the idea that "one day we might be able to make the perilous journey from our universe into another, more hospitable one via wormholes and dimensional portals." But will it happen in time for me to avoid Harry Potter day, I wonder?

Comments